Image of CRV 2 motor hybrid system courtesy of Honda

Thinking About Buying A Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle? Please Use It Responsibly

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If you’ve been looking at greener drivetrains, you’ve encountered hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery-electric vehicles. A hybrid vehicle has 2 powertrains, so you can utilize electric power for your decarbonization efforts and gasoline power for longer trips when you don’t want to or can’t charge. As energy saving vehicles, hybrid electric vehicles have attracted a lot of attention lately due to their longer range and smaller battery volume compared to pure electric vehicles (EVs).

The Appeal of Hybrid Electric Vehicles

The impact of global climate change is already being felt on ecosystems, economic sectors, and people’s health worldwide. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas (GHG) contributing to the climate crisis.The transportation sector generates the largest share of carbon dioxide emissions, since most of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum-based. Therefore, transportation electrification supplies an efficient path to reach carbon neutrality and provides strong motivation for reducing GHG emissions.

With the world’s energy reserves in transition due to the requirements of national carbon emission regulations, efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles are quite important. Due to the combination of long cruising range and energy efficiency, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) have been adopted as a reliable option for improving fuel economy and reducing emissions. HEVs offer an appealing pathway for individuals as they reconcile to a world in which petroleum-based transportation becomes a memory and full-electric transportation is accepted as the norm.

A major challenge in designing HEVs, though, is how to split power among multiple power sources related to vehicle power requests. Kate Harrison, co-founder of MoveEV, wondered, in the face of resistance toward rapid EV adoption, do hybrids pose the safest alternative?

MoveEV helps organizations convert fleet and employee-owned gas vehicles to electric and reimburse for charging at home. Since Harrison helps companies take full advantage of EV government incentives and fuel savings while solving supply chain issues with optimized software solutions, she’s keyed into the world of everything electric. During an email correspondence, she acknowledged the logic behind the pro-hybrid argument.

  • They offer better fuel economy than gasoline-only vehicles.
  • They avoid some of the common fears around battery electric cars, such as range anxiety and other worries associated with rapid technological adoption.
  • In particular, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) appear to combine the best of both worlds.

But, Harrison asked, are hybrid vehicles “truly the panacea they’re made out to be, or just another fool’s gold?”

Entry level hybrid vehicles are powered by an internal combustion engine and one or more electric motors, which use energy stored in batteries. As the US Department of Energy explains, a hybrid electric vehicle cannot be plugged in to charge the battery. Instead, the battery is charged through regenerative braking and by the internal combustion engine. People in the US bought more than one million hybrids in 2023, which was up 76% from the same period previous year. That comes as sales of hybrids had been declining for several years.

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is a further step towards full personal transportation electrification. At first glance, Harrison noted, PHEVs can seem like an ideal solution. Most PHEVs can travel between 10 and 50 miles solely on electricity. Once the battery is drained, PHEVs operate like conventional hybrids and switch over to gas from electric operation. Combined sales of hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and battery electric vehicles in the US rose to 16.3% of total new light-duty vehicle sales in 2023, up from 12.9% in 2022.

In fact, hybrid vehicles account for more than 40% of all electric vehicles. Companies are drawn to them due to their flexibility, federal tax incentives, and the promise of reduced fuel consumption.

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“However, as with all things that glitter,” Harrison mused, “there’s more than meets the eye.”

The biggest value of PHEVs lies in their potential to reduce carbon emissions. When plugged in regularly, they can save about 1.5 tons of carbon annually. This is a significant 30% reduction compared to the average car’s emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency says a front-wheel drive CR-V Hybrid gets 40 mpg in city and highway driving — 10 mpg better than the gasoline powered version. An owner of a hybrid CR-V who drives 15,000 miles annually would save $450 a year on fuel over the gas model.

Harrison reminds us that with these calculations comes a catch.

“The environmental and financial benefits of PHEVs are contingent upon one crucial factor: regular charging. When fleet drivers neglect to charge their PHEVs and rely excessively on gasoline, the advantages rapidly dissipate. In fact, among all PHEV owners, fleet managers are the least likely to plug in the cars to maximize their range. PHEVs, when not used as intended, can actually be detrimental both environmentally and financially.”

Why is it that PHEVs may actually be less beneficial if not used to their full electric advantage?

  • Their heavier build, a result of the battery technology, makes them less fuel efficient when running solely on gas.
  • This weight accelerates tire wear, leading to increased tire particulate pollution.
  • The initial environmental footprint of PHEVs is larger due to the materials required for their manufacture.
  • They cost more to run when driving on gas alone, which, when added to their higher sticker price, can really hurt the bottom line.

The solution is not to abandon PHEVs, Harrison suggests, but, rather, “to make sure they are used responsibly.”

Companies must adopt a pro-charging approach. Installing charging infrastructure at workplaces, facilitating on-the-go charging, creating a home-first charging policy, and reimbursing employees for home charging are all essential steps, she argues. Fleet managers must also educate drivers on maximizing the benefits of their PHEV and empower them to maintain a full charge of the fleet vehicle whenever possible.

“By ensuring that PHEVs are charged regularly, companies can truly harness their potential for sustainability,” Harrison continues, explaining that “the onus is not just on corporations but also should be on policymakers. Incentives for PHEVs should be structured in a way that rewards actual electric usage, rather than just the purchase of the vehicle.” This could include tiered tax breaks based on electric miles driven or subsidies for companies that can demonstrate a high percentage of electric-only usage in their fleet.

“With so many PHEVs in fleet drivers’ hands, now is the moment for introspection and action. It’s imperative that we ensure these hybrids don’t just shine on the surface but deliver genuine, sustainable value for our environment and economy,” she reminds us.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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